As followers of The Duran will have noticed, I recently spent a week in Moscow.
Most of my time there inevitably was taken up with work on The Duran. It was thrilling to meet my colleagues there. This is the first time since The Duran was founded that all four of us – Alex Christoforou, Peter Lavelle, Vladimir Rodzianko and myself – were all gathered together in one place. It was my first opportunity to meet Sergey Gladysh, our managing editor.
The highlight of the visit was The Duran’s launch party, followed swiftly after by our first live Q&A session.
Both were hugely stimulating and exciting events. It was wonderful to see the interest and support The Duran has generated in the few months since we started. It was especially thrilling to meet with our readers and – during the Q&A session – to respond to their questions.
Time constraints – including a flying visit to Greece directly after my trip to Moscow – made it impossible for me to follow up – and properly thank – all the people I met in Moscow. Rest assured that it is now my priority.
Though the trip to Moscow was first and foremost a business visit, it also gave me a good opportunity to get a feel of the state of the city as winter approaches and as Russia comes out of recession.
The word “elegant” is not one that is generally associated with Moscow, and yet in my opinion it is the one that best matches the direction in which the city is evolving.
If one’s taste – like mine – runs to art deco, then Moscow is the art deco capital par excellence. I say this because in my opinion what is generally called ‘Stalinist architecture’ – which actually lasted for several years after Stalin’s death – is more properly called Russian art deco.
Moreover it is art deco done with extraordinary conviction and flair. The centre of Moscow is full of it. The seven great Stalinist skyscrapers (“the Seven Sisters”) and the Moscow Metro are internationally the most famous examples, but by no means the only ones or even necessarily the best. Indeed if I had to say what I think is perhaps the most remarkable example of Russian art deco, then it would be the great exhibition area VDNKh – complete with Vera Mukhina’s iconic statue of a worker and farmer holding aloft the hammer and sickle – which is currently in the last stages of a major renovation.
What however gives Moscow such a strong art deco flavour is not that it is the style used for some of the great buildings. Rather it is that it is the architectural style chosen for so many of the great apartment buildings not just in the city’s centre but in its inner suburbs.
These apartment buildings – with their fine apartments with their amazingly tall ceilings, and with their leafy courtyards with their parking and their ample children’s play areas – are some of the most handsome apartment buildings in the world, and there seem to be thousands of them. A suburb I visited – Sokol – seemed to be composed entirely of them.
Interspersed amongst these art deco apartment buildings are parks – of which Moscow seems to have a prodigious number – certain quarters towards the centre which still retain a distinctly nineteenth century character (especially in the area close to the Kremlin), and a surprisingly large number of very fine art nouveau and modernist buildings from the period just before the First World War and from the 1920s.
The large number of 1920s modernist (“Constructivist”) buildings – of which the most famous is Lenin’s tomb – is especially surprising, though many of them are in poor condition. Moscow compares very well in this respect with other European cities. By way of example, very close to my hotel in the Arbat there was a remarkable cylindrical Constructivist town house built by the architect Konstantin Melnikov.
“Renovation” is perhaps the best word to describe what is currently happening to Moscow, and it is being conducted at a frenetic pace that to someone used to the infinitely slower pace now common in the West is quite dizzying.
Since the summer most of the sidewalks in the centre of the city have been widened – making the city far friendlier and more accessible to pedestrians – and there seems to have been a blizzard of tree planting, making what will be an already very green city even greener.
I use the future tense because when I arrived Moscow was covered by its first snow, and one day the temperature fell to -8 degrees centigrade. That meant that there was little green, but one is more than compensated by the snow, which at this early stage in winter gives Moscow its beautiful winter coat.
At this point I should say that people who have never been to Moscow and who have heard frightening stories of the cold should put those fears aside. Not only are the heating systems exceptionally efficient, but the dry climate makes the cold and the snow not just bearable but actually stimulating – rather like drinking champagne. Suffice to say that I find that London’s damp and humid climate makes the cold there far more difficult to bear, even though the thermometer in London rarely falls below zero.
The combination of pristine art deco architecture and sparkling snow is magical, and the extraordinary colour of much of the architecture – especially of the churches of which there are scores – adds to the beautiful picture.
The renovation I spoke of has however played a major part in bringing these qualities out. Compared to the Moscow of the 1990s and the early 2000s, which I remember only too well, the transformation has been astonishing.
The ugly advertisements which had proliferated have disappeared – including completely from the Metro. The tacky kiosks have gone. There is barely any graffiti, and the streets are not only entirely free of litter but seem almost polished.
Some areas like Novy Arbat – which in the 1990s had become a profoundly horrible gambling district – have been transformed, becoming an actually very pleasant entertainment district with dozens of fine bars, cafes, shops (including book and electronic shops) and restaurants.
Our contributor James Bradley recently wrote a piece for The Duran in which he spoke with wonder of the beautiful orderliness of Moscow and of the absence of potholes there.
Not only do I agree with this picture but as a brief visitor James Bradley was of course unable to see what a pleasant – as opposed to a merely beautiful – city Moscow has become.
The days when Moscow and indeed Russia were a byword for bad food and slovenly service are long gone. The place has proliferated with cafes, restaurants and bars, and it is now even possible to talk of places that actually offer fine dining for those who want it, whilst the service I experienced in every place I went was excellent.
Interestingly in one place the waiter was careful to warn me (in English) that the price on the menu (in Russian) of the steak I had ordered was its price according to weight. An actual portion would weigh three times as much and would therefore cost three times more. I had already worked it out but I was nonetheless impressed that the waiter thought fit to tell me about it. I can think of many other places where a waiter would not have done so.
To those incidentally brought up with stories of Russian food being only boiled cabbage and meatballs, I would say that it is actually one of the most distinctive cuisines of Europe, and there are now plenty of places in Moscow where one can sample it in all its variety – from the traditional, to the form which would once have been familiar in Moscow restaurants just before the Revolution, to the ultra-modern of today.
In addition to Russian food there is also an abundance of other cuisines to choose from, from the ubiquitous sushi, to Caucasian and Central Asian cuisines which are barely known in the West, to excellent Indian and Chinese food, and of course to every conceivable variety of Western food including German, Italian and French.
The Duran’s launch party incidentally was held in a Lebanese restaurant where the food was excellent.
As for the notorious Soviet “bifsteks” (actually a meatball) Moscow is now currently in the throes of a ferocious ‘burger war’ between competing chains (some of them very good), and there is now excellent home grown steak in many places.
One feature of dining in Moscow which has not changed is that one is still far more likely to have live music in a Moscow restaurant than for example in London, and this music is often not just a quiet piano but a singer with a group. I rather enjoy the experience but for those who don’t there are plenty of quieter places to choose from.
If the bar, cafe and restaurant scene is transformed, then Moscow still retains its colossal legacy of theatres, concert halls, ballet and opera houses etc, to an extent possibly unmatched by any other capital. Lovers (like me) of classical music should know that it is taken more seriously in Moscow – with more concerts, venues, advertising and performance – than in any other capital I know (except possibly Vienna) and that the standard of performance is outstanding.
Over and above these activities and the enormous number of fine museums and art galleries one can visit, some of which like the Tretyakov and the Pushkin can compare with the best in the world, Moscow by all accounts continues to have a vibrant nightlife, though one which I am no longer fully up to partaking in.
For those interested in experiencing the full life of Moscow I would add that the best time to visit Moscow is in the autumn and winter months, since it is then that its various scenes (including by the way the Bolshoi) are most busy.
I of course do not want to deny the continuing problems.
Traffic congestion remains appalling, and caused me to be an hour and a half late for a dinner appointment on the day of my arrival.
Retail activity in the shops is still well below where it was before the start of the recession, and that fact is reflected in the statistics.
However overall, not only has Moscow come through the recession well, but as a properly managed recession should be this one has been beneficial, clearing out some of the uglier and less sustainable manifestations of life that were previously there.
In summary, as Moscow along with the rest of Russia comes out of recession, I have never seen it look so well.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.